Why I Switched Thesis Labs in Graduate School

A year ago, I began graduate school. I can recall sitting, bright eyed and bushy tailed, in an auditorium with my fellow first years as our director of graduate studies greeted us and told us about the challenge we were about to undertake. He offered words of wisdom like “Look at those around you and get to know them for one day they can become your colleagues and collaborators no matter where life takes you – academia, industry, and beyond,” and “Your choice in thesis lab is essential for your success.”

This was the first time we were told how to pick a thesis lab, but it was certainly not the last, not even from him. “Not all advisors are equal,” he warned us, “And one who might be a good advisor for one student may not be a good advisor for another student.” There are many things to consider when picking an advisor – the size of the lab, funding, the style of mentorship, the advisor’s personality, the lab’s productivity – but there was one thing he emphasized. “DO NOT pick a lab for the science. Graduate school is a time to learn to be a researcher. You have the rest of your life to do the science you want to do.”

But I didn’t listen.

During undergrad, I had decided that I wanted to do research related to cancer – more specifically, research that had a rather direct contribution to therapeutic development. I narrowed down my lab options to those with a therapeutic focus and ultimately joined a lab that studied immunotherapy, an area that I was incredibly excited about.

Unfortunately, the small lab didn’t have its “bread and butter” research, an established focus of its research efforts. But I didn’t care. During my rotation in the lab, I had designed a project to start from scratch and formed a collaborative mentorship team to help me with it. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the risk that came from starting a brand new project that neither of my mentors was well versed in. I did know there were some risks from joining the lab, though, with a history of students taking seven or eight years to complete a PhD, but I had chosen the program for the freedom to get a more extensive research experience than at MSTPs where students normally take only three or four years for a PhD and was at the time willing to take on a longer project.

Over the next eight months, I became more aware of the longevity of the training ahead of me while at the same time my project was taking its sweet time to start. Though frustrated at times with lack of progress and mentoring, I was determined to make it work. Convinced by others including my other mentor that I would be a good fellowship candidate, I devoted the summer after my first year to preparing a research proposal and associated materials for an extensive fellowship application from the NIH only to have my other mentor tell me days before submitting that not only was the proposal not ready, the project would not be suitable for a timely PhD. This was followed by the question, “Are you happy?”

My first answer was yes, of course. I thought immunotherapy was an amazing field, and I was ecstatic to be learning about it, hoping to devote my career to it. My lab mates were great. I had a good relationship with my advisor. My project, if it worked, I felt would likely be a valuable finding, and I wanted to see it out. But… my project wasn’t really going anywhere at the moment, my advisor didn’t have the expertise needed to help me with it, and while my other mentor did work with many of the techniques, some of what I proposed was even outside his expertise. Starting this project from scratch likely meant that my PhD was going to take much longer than the five years I hoped, and unfortunately, any other project I would do in the lab would also be started from scratch. With an anticipated nine years of education following graduate school (three to finish medical school, three for residency, and three for fellowship), I no longer wished to risk such a long PhD; therefore, an alternative option was to switch labs.

I had never realized how common it was to switch labs in graduate school. It is said that 20 to 30 percent of students end up switching, and as I thought of the people I knew who switched, I began to really believe those numbers. One friend switched three months after joining his lab because the professor turned out to be crazy (to put it nicely). Another switched eight months after joining because he didn’t fit well with the lab. A third switched after nearly two years when her qualifying exam went poorly and she realized her professor was just not providing the mentorship support that she needed. I also heard cases when graduate students had actually been kicked out of their labs as well and had to find another lab. Sometimes these switches occurred even later into their third, fourth, or fifth years. I was glad to be considering switching just one year into the program.

When it comes to switching labs, a challenge is to find a new lab (which is a must before telling your current advisor that you want to switch). Luckily, I have maintained contact with professors other than my own advisor throughout my first year. Therefore, when it came to looking for a new lab, I already had others where I knew the professor and would be comfortable joining their lab. The one I knew best was my other mentor for my project, but he did not work with cancer. On the other hand, his wife who I also knew well studies the liver with part of her lab focused on liver cancer. Since their labs work together and I did my last rotation in his lab, I knew I would fit in her lab. Also, unlike my first lab, she has more projects available than people to do them, and she was eager for more students. As she told me about all of the projects available, I was convinced that I would be more productive in her lab.

The biggest challenge was then to talk about my situation with my advisor. I have the utmost respect for him and was nervous to tell him that I no longer wished to be in his lab. When we spoke after being told that I should not submit my application, he told me that he had just written in my recommendation that I dealt with roadblocks well. As I had contemplated switching labs, I wondered if this would still hold true should I switch or would I be taking the easy way out? Would I be letting him down? My friends reminded me that when it comes to your future, you should never be ashamed to be selfish and do what you feel is best for you. I knew this switch was what I needed.

My advisor had been on vacation, giving me time to contemplate this whole situation. When he returned, I went to his office to talk. First we talked about what other projects I could do in the lab because I really did want to give the lab a chance. As we exhausted possible projects, though, none stood out to me as being able to provide the productive research experience I would receive in the other lab. I then suggested that an alternative option was for me to switch labs. To my relief, he was incredibly receptive, wanting whatever is best for me. I couldn’t have imagined it going any better. I’m sad to leave, but I’m glad to be leaving on such amicable terms.

Later that day, I saw the director of my graduate program speaking to a room of new students. I smiled for I, too, was bright eyed and bushy tailed just like them – just like I had been the year before – eager to get started in my new thesis lab. Perhaps someday I will again focus my efforts on immunotherapy, but for now I will still get to study cancer in lab where I have a better chance of completing a productive and timely PhD.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdbaskin/7192766626/in/photolist-bXANVG-5Fo6hk-6FAgSM-u7ks-myStXX-yWGAC-3K3QFk-53T4aw-kdJuX-5o2kg7-5YMsfz-8knqJF-5Em3Zy-qua68-e8G3E-dVqHGp-AJvVH-8FYgkB-6gT9cp-7Ep6ou-oPZrS-9huWSf-LYfxv-M71YQ-642Jrh-M72jL-M72gE-LYfA4-pR84C-M726s-M78we-M78jv-ao4zpe-ejukgp-t8y99-3dGsYz-hFNvQ-9faasB-bcVqJe-6a8T7k-bcVpPv-9hsfyE-bcVp9P-4bGEJF-9gMKoC-bcVssn-9pZZVn-ev3Z7-22tZnz-885jG9

It’s Been a While

Did you miss me?

While you may follow me on twitter and see my day to day ramblings, it’s been quite some time since I’ve done a real update here on my beloved blog.

This post is to tell you why.

I last posted about my experience with school at the end of fall semester. Then a few things happened. And suddenly, spring semester is almost gone! What’s really helped time fly is that I’ve lived up to motto quite well this semester: Do All The Things Here’s the jist of what my semester has been like:

Medical School Classes

Our program has us take our M1 courses spread out during our PhD, so I got a start on mine by taking immunology and brain, behavior, and human development. I had to race back from Minnesota soon after new years to beat the oncoming winter storm and be back on time to start medical school courses on January 6 – two weeks before the rest of the university’s courses started. While the immunology class ended at the beginning of March, the brain, behavior, and human development course goes until mid May.

Graduate School Classes

My program has additional graduate school course requirements, so I took the undergraduate/graduate immunology course as well as a tumor targeting journal club this semester. I *may* get to TA the immunology course at some point so that was another reason to take the second immuno. The journal club is a more chill class requiring a single presentation on a paper each semester as we all take turns presenting. It’s also a multidisciplinary group of graduate and undergraduate students which means we learn about targeting tumor therapy from a variety of perspectives!

Seminars/Symposiums/Meetings

I think I have a problem because I love seminars. Like I go to all of them. Not just for my own department (physiology) but many others like the microbiology, cell and developmental biology, and biochemistry departments (and sometimes neuroscience/others). My department began the semester with job candidate talks twice a week and has at least relaxed to just one seminar per week now. I’ve also spent a day at the College of Medicine’s Annual Research Symposium and will be enjoying the weekend at the American Physician Scientist’s Association Annual Meeting in Chicago, IL.

Being a Teaching Assistant

I got to stand on the other side of the classroom for the first time as I had my own section of introduction to microbiology lab for non-majors. While the concepts weren’t necessarily hard, figuring out how to teach them to people who weren’t science majors and getting them interested in it was the real challenge. Overall, it’s been a wonderful experience – my students are great and helping others learn feels great. There’s just a few more classes before the end of the semester, and I just *might* miss it this summer (though I’ll enjoy more time for other things!)

Clinical Practice Preceptorship

I may not be doing my clinical years for quite some time, but I did get to spend a little time in the clinic this year. We have a program that matches up M1s with physicians to shadow and really learn about patient care. I opted to do this so soon since I had never actually shadowed a physician before, it helped balance out my other basic science endeavors, and I hoped to make a lasting connection with a physician mentor. As an aspiring academic medical oncologist, I lucked out and was placed with a medical oncologist who also happened to be director of cancer research at the local hospital. While I only shadowed a few times, it was a great experience to have early on.

Writing

While I wasn’t writing for here as much, I was still writing. Most of my attention has been on writing articles for The Almost Doctor’s Channel, though I’ve also started writing for Doc Check and contributed to Lean On‘s blog.

Oh, and research

Wait, is that why I’m in grad school? I really started work on my project this semester after doing A LOT of reading and planning this fall to start to develop my own project. After working with primary mouse cells for a while, I got the dendritic cell line that the lab had been trying to get for quite some time, which was infinitely better (until recently when they just decided to stop growing). I managed to get enough data to make a poster for the College of Medicine’s Annual Research Symposium and I’m looking forward to being able to devote much more time to it once the semester is over.

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And that’s spring semester in a nutshell! I’m hoping to write more about some of these experiences more in depth when I get the time. As always, if you have any questions or want me to address anything specific on here, feel free to shoot me an e-mail at mdphdtobe@gmail.com and I will do my best to respond in a timely manner.

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Featured photo source: “Time” by JD | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Spring “Break”

 

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Spring Break 2014 has just come and passed. While this is a time for most undergrads to get away from campus, it’s a time for grad students like me to stick around and get work done. This is what it looks like.

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DOUBLE FISTING

Photo on 2014-03-25 at 09.28 #2

No, not drinks.

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LEARNING ABOUT [FOREIGN] CULTURES

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Cultures of cells…

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PARTYING* IN THE HOOD**

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*Working

**The tissue culture hood

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MIXING IT UP

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Work that vortex

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ENJOYING THE FLOW

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Flow cytometry, that is.

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ENHANCING MY HIGHLIGHTS

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Not in my hair, on my notes.

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CONSUMING DRUG OF CHOICE

coffee

MOAR COFFEE

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USING ALCOHOL

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Don’t drink this stuff.

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TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT’S GOING ON

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So much data. What does it mean???

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Wow! What a week!!! 😉

2014-03-23 13.23.22Eternally waiting for the centrifuge…

My third and final rotation

To put it simply, my third rotation was different.

Leaning toward joining my second rotation lab, I picked my third rotation advisor not because of the research focus but because the PI (primary investigator) was a new and enthusiastic professor. Seriously, this PI is one of the most passionate people I have met within the field of science. I had met them on my interview weekend and really enjoyed hearing their take on academia as a recent post doc. As they told me about their research I kept asking “You could apply that to cancer, right?” and they would say, “Yeah, but we’re doing it with muscular dystrophy in the heart” or “Yeah, but we’re looking at the liver.” The scientific area they looked at in the lab (RNA expression/splicing) was a secondary reason why I chose the lab for my last rotation.

I knew I didn’t want to look at the liver or the heart, but I thought I’d try just to see if it sparked my interest outside of cancer in general.

I solidified my decision for doing my third rotation in the lab before I began the second. Then as I began my second rotation, an opportunity to form a collaboration for a grant related to cancer arose and I suggested my third rotation advisor as a collaborator since the techniques used in that lab could be applied to our research. We together wrote our letter of intent for the grant and I began planning a project for me to do during my rotation.

Unlike most students who begin their rotations and are introduced to the lab’s work then given a project, I came in to the rotation declaring my project and was given a side project to get used to the techniques of the lab before applying them to my precious samples. I was given some papers related to the liver work that I was doing but other than my introduction, I never really had a conversation about what I could do with it as a thesis project. I found out at the end that they had that kind of discussion with other rotation students but because I was so set in my ways that there was no need to convince me to switch my interests from cancer and the immune system to the liver.

While I ended up not joining the lab, I had a great time getting to know everyone in the lab (though it was relatively new, there were a lot of undergrads to get to know in addition to the grad student and post doc). I will definitely miss them but I hope to continue to the collaborative project with the lab so I will still get to interact with them. Nonetheless, this rotation re-introduced me to techniques I hadn’t used for many years such as western blots (which I had done in biochemistry lab) and PCR (which I had done in my first undergrad research lab), which was nice to go back to (and made me sort of nostalgic about my first undergrad lab)! So overall, it was quite enjoyable.

I ultimately ended up joining my second rotation lab, but I am glad that I complemented the first chemistry-focused lab developing chemotherapeutic agents and the second immunology lab focused on developing immunotherapies for brain cancer with a lab focused on understanding the RNA expression and splicing changes in disease and development. I ultimately joined the immunology lab, but as I’m researching potential directions to go with my project, I am finding ways to include the three distinct labs in which I did my rotations.

Unlike many students who came in to the program knowing that they wanted to work in a particular area – be it microbiology or biochemistry – or a particular topic – such as non-coding RNA – I came in with a general purpose to have my work relate to cancer therapy. I rotated in both biochemistry and physiology labs that were in quite distinct areas of chemical synthesis and characterization of potential drugs, immunology, and RNA expression. My list of potential research advisors included PIs from all four departments in my specific graduate school. And I went to seminars for all departments as I found some related to my interests in every department.

While I may have a different way of deciding my thesis lab, being much more of a generalist, I think in the long run, it’ll do me well. It’ll help me be a more well-rounded researcher with a broader scope of the implications of my work and the methods available. It’ll also keep things exciting. Instead of being a specialist in a certain scientific level be it biochemistry, microbiology, physiology, etc., I hope to be a specialist in a disease. Pathology is so complex that I feel this is a good perspective to have for my ultimate goal. Throughout the fall, I have made great connections with professors and graduate students during my rotations from many different areas who I can go to for help throughout my journey, and I can’t wait to get started in my permanent lab!

Reflections from my second lab rotation

Each August, my MD/PhD program holds a retreat that includes inviting alumni back to speak to the current students. This year, the theme of one of the alumni’s talks was “serendipity.” Defined as a happy accident, serendipity was a great way for her to describe how she came to her current career as opportunities arose that were best for her but did not fit a conventional career path in medicine. This same term applies to much of my path. It was serendipitous for me to even find out about MD/PhD programs – discovering they existed while looking at grad programs just days before taking the GRE – and apply to my specific school – being encouraged by an e-mail to apply – and it has turned out to be the perfect program for me. And so, I’ve learned to embrace of such pleasant surprises by keeping myself open to change as best I can to see where life will take me.

Today marks the three-month mark of me living in Illinois. It’s crazy to realize that a quarter of a year ago I was making the move excited to start my new life in a new state as an MD/PhD student. Now, it feels like home. In that time, I’ve made many new friends who are grad students like myself, I’ve learned to live on my own, and I’ve adjusted to the responsibilities of being a graduate student. It has been a major change from my comfortable undergrad life in Minnesota where I had family nearby, roommates, and plenty of extracurricular activities to keep me preoccupied.

As I’ve gone through my lab rotations, my research interests have also shifted in a somewhat serendipitous manner. In undergrad, I imagined my research to contribute to improving chemotherapy by developing more targeted small molecules as potential drugs. I rotated first in the one lab that was related to this and that I was interested in before coming to here, and it turned out to not be all of what I wanted in a lab. Fortunately, I found a lab that had not been listed as taking graduate students in the spring when I visited for my interview but was related to cancer therapy – immunotherapy for brain tumors, specifically – and so I took a chance and contacted the PI. It turned out that they were going to be taking rotation students, so I met with them before the school year began and we hit it off! They were actually going to a neuro-oncology symposium at Minnesota, my beloved alma mater, at the end of the first rotation and wanted to have me come with but I had already set up my first rotation so we agreed that I would do my second rotation in the lab and not go to the symposium.

When I met with the PI again near the end of the first rotation, we confirmed that we were going to do whatever we could to be matched in the process of assigning labs. I was going to list the lab as my top choice and they were also going to request me as a student. The next day, we also figured out a way to get me to the symposium in Minnesota by asking my first rotation advisor if it would be alright if I took the last couple days of my rotation to go. They agreed and so I left on the Wednesday night before the symposium and drove 4 hours to Madison where I stayed with one of my best friends who just started a PhD program there. I left the next morning at 4:45 am and made it to Minnesota at 9, just a little late to the symposium but better rested than if I had woken up early enough to be on time for the 7:30 symposium registration.

Being able to go to this symposium was possibly the best opportunity that I’ve had so far in grad school. I learned a lot about neuro-oncology and met many big names in the field. Most importantly, it inspired me as there is a cohort of researchers at Minnesota ranging from basic research to animal and human clinical research devoted to developing immunotherapies for brain tumors who all spoke at the symposium. My knowledge of immunology – and immunotherapy specifically – was limited since I had only superficially been exposed to the topic in my physiology and health psychology classes in undergrad, but I left that symposium really believing that triggering the immune system to attack cancer cells had the potential to be a much more effective mode of therapy than the slash, burn, and poison techniques that are currently used (surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy). It was also a great opportunity because it was homecoming so I was able to stay for the weekend, see many of my good friends, and go to the homecoming festivities for the first time as an alumna.

With my former roommate at the homecoming football game!
With my former roommate at the homecoming football game!

As I said in my previous post, “The first rotation is the hardest,” the structure of a lab rotation can vary drastically depending on the lab. While my first lab had me working on a project of my own, my second lab had me essentially just observing. This lab is small with just a graduate student, three undergraduate students, and the PI, so there was less experimental work to observe. This gave me free time during the 5 weeks to research the literature and gain a more in depth understanding of immunotherapy and begin to formulate ideas of my own to pursue.

While there was less lab work to observe, when there was something to observe it was something I had never seen before. As a chemistry major working in a medicinal chemistry lab in undergrad, my work primarily involved analytical chemistry with a little bit of tissue culture. On the other hand, this lab primarily does work with mice and so the first time I had ever worked with mice I ended up doing a little brain surgery to inject cancer cells into their brains, which they were going to live with for a week when we would collect some of their organs for immunohistochemistry. I had never been a fan of dissections (topic of a future post), but I actually enjoyed doing surgeries on mice.

So you may be wondering what interests me so much about the immune system. Well, the immune system is the body’s defense against foreign antigens and so it can be activated to attack bacteria, etc. that are recognized as non-self. Human cells can also be recognized as non-self and can be attacked such as when a person receives an organ donation from a non-compatible donor and the body rejects the organ. To control the immune system and prevent it from attacking the body’s own cells, there are also immune cells that suppress the immune response toward an antigen. Since cancer cells arise from an endogenous (self) cell, they can be missed by the immune system even though they have altered expression of proteins that could distinguish them from normal healthy cells. Additionally, cancers tend to emit signals that promote immune suppression and thus prevent their destruction. I’m hopeful that better understanding this cancer-induced immunosuppression and finding a way of inhibiting it will be able to improve immunotherapies.

You may also be wondering what interests me about brain tumors. Well, one in four cancers that spread throughout the body ends up metastasizing to the brain (about 170,000 will be diagnosed in a year) and the prognosis for these patients is generally poor. For those diagnosed with brain metastases, their life expectancy is usually less than 2 years. Brain cancers are also more difficult to treat because the blood-brain barrier is limiting for delivery of therapies. Therefore, there is an extra challenge in developing therapies, and I am always up for a challenge. 😉 This can be overcome by surgery, which is non-ideal to repeat because it exposes the brain, increases the likelihood of infection, and may not completely remove all cancer cells. As an alternative, immune cells can cross the blood-brain barrier easily, which makes immunotherapy a viable option for treating these tumors.

Though I didn’t need to have a project of my own during my rotation, I was itching to have something to sort of call my own. I finally got my own project started at the end of the rotation that I’m continuing to my third and last rotation in a lab that looks at alterations in RNA splicing during development. I plan to use the RNA analytical techniques of that lab on samples from my second lab. In fact, soon after I began my second rotation, I established a collaboration between the two labs! Therefore whichever one I join, I can work with both PIs because I like both of them as well as their labs.

Just 29 days until I can officially join a lab. Until then, I will need to decide which of these two labs I will be the best for me. Regardless, I should be able to do the science that I want to do, so now it’s just picking my primary lab and advisor.